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Community members voice concerns about school board conduct in Wrenshall

Teachers, parents and coaches all shared their opinions on the Wrenshall School Board and the possibility of joining all sports in a cooperative agreement with the Carlton School District.

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Wrenshall School Clint Austin / 2021 File / Duluth News Tribune
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WRENSHALL — Teachers and community members took the chance during the Wrenshall School Board's open forum to voice their concerns, criticism and even offer some advice to the board.

Some of the comments from teachers and community members were critical of some board members' conduct, and said students in the district deserve better.

A long round of applause by the 40 people in attendance followed each person as they concluded their statements during the open forum.

Nichole Rowland, a second grade teacher, voiced her disappointment on how a school that was once "a hidden gem," had been put into a bad light.

Rowland said she is dedicated to the district, commuting 70 miles daily, and she knows the staff do not represent the negative way they feel the district is perceived. She believes some of the reasons for the shift in perception stem from racist or homophobic comments made by school board members at public meetings, or in conversations.

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"The outside world is looking at our school and cringing," she said.

Sixteen students left the district in the hours following a meeting where community members were belittled after asking the district to require masks inside the building.

Cheryl Ankrum, a retired teacher, said she developed concerns about the school board after attending meetings more regularly. A lack of growth and professionalism were two concerns she cited.

"You appear to be disjointed, back peddle, say one thing and in the next breath say something else," she said.

Actions during board meetings were not the only thing she referenced.

"You sign a petition so then you get a friendly finger salute from a board member," she said, referring to a petition to remove Bill Dian, who was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the school board and subsequently removed from office.

Ankrum said she wants the board members to think about getting back into the classroom and understanding what goes on in a classroom. With educators leaving this year, she said that impacts what the district is able to do. A review of school board agendas by the Pine Journal found two teachers and the athletic director have resigned and a paraprofessional has retired since October 2021.

"I'm really hoping this division that is going on can end and we can work together," she said.

Wrenshall native Suzy Berger, a kindergarten and first grade teacher, said while she may no longer live in Wrenshall, it is still her home. Seeing colleagues leave the district concerned her as well.

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"Why are they leaving and why do so few want to work here?" she asked.

Berger said comments made in meetings over the past year and a half have made her upset and ashamed of the board.

"I'm shocked by some of the board actions I've witnessed," she said. "I heard racist, homophobic, inappropriate and unprofessional statements being made."

She added that after going home from meetings she felt disgusted and ashamed, and ashamed at herself for not trying to stop the behavior. Berger didn't want to be viewed as unprofessional and was worried about retaliation, but she said she will no longer sit back when statements are made that hurt students, the school or the community.

"Our students deserve role models that will stand up to what is wrong with our school, and it starts with me," she said.

Denise North, a teacher and president of the teachers' union, said teachers and staff have been feeling the impact and sharing a load.

"I'm proud of our members who spoke," she said. "Lets come up with a solution."

The union is planning to hold a forum for candidates who run for school board seats in the fall, she said.

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Janaki Fisher-Merritt, a former board member, said he wanted to give the board some tips on doing a better job. One aspect Fisher-Meritt highlighted was the lack of discussion the board has had on controversial or complex issues.

"People need to hear you wrestle with that work," he said.

When decisions are made with little or no discussion, Fisher-Meritt said it makes it seem like board members are making decisions on the fly or having a discussion outside of a board meeting.

He added the district needs to know where it is at financially sooner than May to better prepare for any possible cuts or budget planning in general.

"You six people are in charge; no one is coming to help the district," he said. "This is the type of thing that makes the staff on edge."

When the open forum concluded, board Chair Misty Bergman thanked everyone who spoke for their comments.

"That was a lot of information to take in," she said. "We appreciated your feedback."

Cooperative agreement

Two coaches and one parent voiced their support for Wrenshall joining with the Carlton School District for all sports.

Aaron Lattu, Wrenshall's baseball coach, said the possibility of combining teams with Carlton was exciting.

"Why not get all this done and get our sports together?" he asked.

He said that as things stand, the baseball team is unlikely to have a team next year if the district does enter into a cooperative agreement. Even if there were enough players, he said it is dangerous and less competitive to have seventh and eighth graders playing at the varsity level. If the teams need to fundraise for jerseys, they would do it, he said.

Lattu also believes that by combining for all sports, it would bring back more school culture — the kind of culture officials should want to create, he said.

"Attendance has been pretty lackluster," he said. "I want a way to get people excited; this is the way to do that."

With students playing at the right levels it would also allow Wrenshall to become more competitive, as Lattu said the last time any district team went to state was in 2005.

John Peterson, Wrenshall's volleyball coach, echoed many of Lattu's sentiments.

He motioned to seven volleyball players in attendance as he said they have already been playing with the Carlton girls, so joining teams would be beneficial for them.

Financially, Peterson said joining would cut costs in half.

Both Lattu and Peterson said they know that if their sports combine with Carlton they would likely lose their positions, but that is something they are both OK with.

"(The Carlton coach) has been coaching since before I was born," Peterson joked.

Angela Sjodin, a parent of a Wrenshall athlete, said she was excited when she heard there was a possibility of joining sports programs.

Joining programs would only make the teams stronger and be able to compete at the levels of other districts, according to Sjodin. Other schools have even refused to play Wrenshall because they have beaten them so badly, she added.

"I don't care which school board it is, let's get it done," she said.

Budget, principal contract OK'd

After updates and a special meeting to go over the budget, the school board approved a conservative budget for the upcoming school year.

The budget, which has a general fund deficit of $142,000, is better than what was originally projected less than a month ago. However, the actual deficit the board accepted was $1.1 million, which business manager Angela Anderson said is slightly misleading as that includes $950,000 of construction costs, which the district already has funding for.

The latest enrollment estimates for the upcoming school year have the district at 360 students; however, the board wanted some cushion in the budget, so the numbers were set to 356 students. Anderson said each student enrolled adds roughly $10,000 to the general fund. For a stable budget, enrollment has historically been around 380 students, she said.

The board also approved a one-year contract for Principal Michelle Blanchard. Blanchard's salary will be $88,300, which, according to Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro, is lower than those for principals in neighboring districts.

The board also tabled a vote on hiring an outside investigator to investigate claims against two district employees. The cost of the contract was capped at $10,000.

Board member Nicole Krisak said she wanted to have more time to look through the contract and speak with the firm.

Board member Ben Johnson said there was a slight conflict of interest with the firm, which was discussed during the board's closed session, as it has ties to the Carlton County GOP.

Krisak said she was still in support of the investigation, but said she wants to make sure the firm proposed is the right one to do the job.

"This is not something that I want to take lightly," she said.

The board unanimously voted to table the vote on the contract.

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Dylan covers the local governments of Cloquet and Carlton County, as well as the Esko and Wrenshall school boards for the Cloquet Pine Journal.
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